For years, most visitors to Greece ignored Thessaloniki, thinking of it -- if at all -- as a poor second to Athens. That began to change in 1997, when Thessaloniki -- the capital of Macedonia, the second-largest city in Greece, and the emotional heart of northern Greece -- was named the European City of Culture. Since then, word has gotten out about Thessaloniki's varied charms and more and more visitors are coming here.

The city has had an explosion of renovations, restorations, and innovations. Old warehouses in the waterfront Ladadika district have been smartened up and transformed into cafes, restaurants, and galleries. Museums of photography, cinema, and contemporary art have appeared, along with what may be Greece's liveliest avant-garde music scene.

Increasingly, Thessaloniki is a popular destination city for weekending Greeks and jet-setting Europeans -- many from Eastern Europe -- who've already "done" Prague and Barcelona. In addition, Thessaloniki has an increasingly large semi-permanent population of immigrants and migrants from throughout the Balkans and the former Soviet Union. In some neighborhoods, in many restaurants and cafes, on street corners and in buses, you'll hear much Russian spoken -- and much, much more Russian than English, French, or German. Visitors here -- wherever they hail from -- can still visit the wonderful Byzantine churches for which Thessaloniki has always been famous, but also enjoy the rhythm of today's Thessaloniki, with its varied cuisine, multiplicity of galleries and museums, and virtually all-night-every-night cafe life. When Athenians cough and complain about pollution and the evil nefos (smog) that blankets the capital city every summer, Thessalonians enjoy the cool breezes off the sea as they take evening promenades beside the Gulf of Thessaloniki.

The National Road from Athens to Thessaloniki was considerably improved in 2010-11. It's possible to drive between Greece's two most important cities in 6 hours with a couple of brief stops for snacking and stretching along the way. If you're not pressed for time, break your trip between the two cities by taking in the lively port town of Volos and the wooded villages of Mount Pelion. Good roads link the archaeological sites of Vergina, Pella, and Dion -- once homes of the mighty warrior Philip II of Macedon and his famous son, Alexander the Great -- both to the National Road and to Thessaloniki. Even Mount Athos and its monasteries are linked to Thessaloniki by a good road -- although only men are allowed to visit the Holy Mountain.

In July of 2009, the Via Egnatia, which links Igoumenitsa, in northwest Greece, with the borders of Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Bulgaria, and Turkey was opened. In theory, the new highway cuts travel time between, for example, Ioannina and Thessaloniki from 5 to 2 1/2 hours. Like the National Highway, the Via Egnatia has very heavy truck traffic.